How to tell a country by the airport it keeps

How to tell a country by the airport it keeps

Not for the first time, I find myself standing outside the arrivals hall sneaking a quick post-flight cigarette with other anti-social furtives waiting for a colleague to collect his baggage off the carousel wondering whether,if you can tell a country’s moral values by its advertising hoardings, can you tell the country itself by its airports?

This time, it’s Nairobi. As a ‘disaster risk adviser’ for the UN, I attend conferences and workshops the world over, so I get to see a lot of airports and a lot of countries. It’s one of the reasons I do the job, I suppose; to travel … but preferably not in an aircraft chartered by the UN as, being contracted to the lowest bidder and even bolted together by the lowest bidder decades before, this surely must constitute the biggest ‘risk’ of them all!

When I worked in war zones – which I seem to do less of nowadays, thank God – the criteria were simple: How many bullet holes or RPG impact splashes were visible on the control tower? How many letters saying, “welcome to x” were missing or, if arriving at night, were not illuminated. Is it raining or, worse, snowing? The type of approach being flown was also fairly indicative of trouble to come.

Zagreb’s Pleso airport was not functioning when I first visited it in January 1992, closed down by the threat of Serb airstrikes. Undamaged, it was nevertheless a ghost town with only carcasses of old Soviet bi-planes lying partially dismantled in the long grass alongside the single lampless runway. It came to life rather abruptly that May, when a flotilla of military C-130 ‘Hercules’ arrived in a maelstrom of turbo-prop backwash to start what was to become the world’s largest airlift in history into Sarajevo.

As the lone representative of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office, now called ‘ECHO’, my job was to make sure that all these aircraft bore the EU flag of blue and twelve gold stars. A roll of stickers were under my arm. Being in a hurry to re-fuel and to be the ‘first’ into beleaguered Sarajevo, not one of the pilots was willing to have me clamber onto their precious airplanes and paste on a sticker which would, in all likelihood, peel off in the slipstream anyway. They had a point. The British RAF crew were in particularly obdurate mood and, despite the fact that I was not only a Brit but a former military pilot, told me to “piss off” in no uncertain terms. Re-fuelling an aircraft in a hurry is never easy. Too many things can go wrong, and pilots take re-fuelling very seriously as they don’t want to find their engines conking out mid flight. Re-fuelling in a deserted, closed down airport is even less easy. Especially when the all the British crew had to offer by way of payment was a Shell credit card which was not recognised in Croatia and a letter from the Embassy ‘promising to pay’. Normally, this might suffice, but not when the Embassy in question is in the Capital of the enemy in Belgrade … in the race to Sarajevo – and it was a race – the RAF came last.

It wasn’t so much the sand-bagged bunker that Sarajevo airport had become, or even that it seemed to be on the receiving end of Serb artillery or sniper fire every time I disembarked there, but that the final approach entailed a near vertical spiral dive from a great height rather than the more usual shallow straight-in approach which is more normal in peacetime. This was the second time ‘having to sit on your flak-jacket’ (in order to prevent bullets coming up through the floor when straightening up to land) became one of the criteria, as I had experienced disembarking under fire when arriving in Beirut as part of the British contingent to the international peacekeeping force in 1982. Disembarking under fire, incidentally, is another relatively alarming pursuit as it involves running off the rear ramp of a moving aircraft …

It wasn’t until I went to Bujumbura airport in Burundi in 1995 to pick someone up from the airport that I realised the twice weekly commercial Sabena flights from Brussels made their night landings without navigation, landing or runway lights for fear of being ambushed by rebel groups fighting under the approach path. The architecture of Bujumbura’s terminal building is of what might best be described as “post modern”, looking, as it does, like a clutch of upturned egg-shells. Africa is full of such architectural follies – “follies de grandeur” might be the correct technical description. Despite the often driving rain during the rainy season, there appeared to be no attempt to provide walls, so waiting for the creaking baggage carousel to wheeze into life could often be a somewhat wet and windy affair. All the “Welcome to Bujumbura” letters lit up, though, and the street lights on the road into town worked, too – which was just as well given the size of the pot-holes to be avoided.

A polo playing town planner from UNHCR, being the only person around who could understand a theodolite, and myself as the only aid worker with flying experience built the airport at Ngozi in the interior of Burundi. Having constructed the laterite strip in three days, I was one of the passengers on the inaugural WFP flight to land. The approach to a laterite ‘dirt’ strip in the African bush always involves a low pass down the length of the runway so that the pilot can check for obstructions and puddles. These passes also scare away whatever wildlife and livestock is roaming around, not that there is ever a guarantee that some dozy old cow won’t wander across the runway just as you’re flaring to land. It’s hardly fair to blame the cow, though, as it has probably been months since she last saw a car, and she has certainly never seen a plane.

The only time I ever experienced an emergency stop was in a brand new A320 Airbus midway down its take-off run at Tirana in Albania for just this reason. In 1997, Albania was experiencing its first taste of capitalism. For former communists terrorised by Enver Xoha’s regime, capitalism was an alien concept which was widely understood to mean money for nothing and at no risk. The country was one giant pyramid scheme anyway – or a “ponzi” as we might call it now – the collapse of which had resulted in the anarchy that saw me deployed there in the first place. On my very first evening in town, sipping a cold beer on the pavement opposite an enormous statue of their mounted hero ‘Skenderbeg’, a man was shot dead just feet away from me. There was no pandemonium at all. Just a momentary hush and, as the man’s blood drained into the gutter, a slow glance to see what had happened. Within seconds, everyone had turned back to their beers and resumed their conversations. It turned out that a man, a peasant farmer, had spent the afternoon gambling his life savings away on one of the many illegal ‘one armed bandits’ that lined every available pavement. Once his money had disappeared, he demanded it all back from the kiosk owner. No concept of risk and reward, you see. No concept of capitalism. The man lying dead in the gutter had been trying to explain this novel concept when he was shot.

Anyway, back to Ngozi. The approach involved a circular ‘Spitfire’ approach with lots of sideslipping to lose height rapidly. Once we had bounced to a halt, switched off, and dismounted to have a cigarette in the shade of the wing, I, being rather proud of our handiwork, asked Jean-Luc the pilot what he thought. Drawing deeply on his filterless Gitanes, he said, “Ca va … but perhaps you should cut down some of the trees on the approach”. With this, he leaned down and nonchalantly removed a rather large branch from the undercarriage.

Monrovia’s Taylor airport in Liberia is, without doubt, the pits of all airports, or at least was because I haven’t been there for a few years. The huddle of three single-storey bungalows that make up the terminal complex sit next to a control tower that seemed to me to be more bullet holes than brick. And, not only did none of the letters light up – they might have been in working order for all I know but there was no electricity anyway – there were only two in the familiar “welcome to Monrovia” sign left attached to the wall. And one of these was dangling at a drunken angle riddled with bullet holes.

Flying into Khartoum was always a dusty affair. Fine sand whipped off the Sahara to the north west overlays everything in Khartoum. There is little point sweeping it off as more just settles in its place, so no one bothers. And, as long as alcohol is decanted into innocuous looking plastic cola bottles, the customs officials rummaging through your bags affect the insouciant ‘blind eye’ of their brethren the world over – or as their similarly Muslim brethren in Islamabad do anyway.

If flying into Rumbek’s short dirt strip in Southern Sudan was a challenge, flying out was even more so. Not only is the strip short, but it is surrounded by trees, one of which, a particularly large Mango tree, served as they often do in that part of the world, as the departures hall. To make matters more complicated for the UN’s South African bush pilots, the runway was at high altitude and the weather was invariably hot – conditions that pilots with sweating passengers, too much cargo, and laden with fuel for the long journey back to Khartoum don’t like very much as it puts them at the limit of their ‘envelope’.

I had been at ‘talks’ in the safari camp that served as UN headquarters in these wild and woolly parts to discuss the future of South Sudan. After an alarmingly tree-skimming take off, the plane suddenly lurched nose down, caught in a blast wave from an explosion near the end of the runway. Having regained control and established into a slow climb northwards, the pilot turned and shouted that there was nothing to worry about. It was just his South African mine-clearing friends detonating that day’s find as their jokey way of saying ‘goodbye’.

Ndjamena airport in Chad is only marginally better. Controlled by French legionnaires who, much to the delight of the female aid workers with me, run around in extremely short and extremely tight culottes explaining, “Non, monsieur, c’est pas possible … ” every time I wanted to fly somewhere. The one time I did manage to ‘book’ a helicopter out to one of the camps in the North, it couldn’t take off because “the de-icer in the fuel was wrong”. It was 45°C on the bench where I was sitting!

In another part of the world entirely, the airports of the newly emerging democracies of the Caucasus and Central Asia are a revelation. These smart, modern terminal buildings were built after the collapse of communism when capitalistic financial optimism merged with an inherited soviet-style need to impress. While the unshevelled throng of unofficial, unlicensed and uninsured taxi drivers mill about outside the arrivals hall as they used to do before, all inside is gleaming chrome and glass. Immigration lines are, with the exception of Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, a thing of the past. Rows of user-friendly glass cubicles house smartly uniformed (and, it has to be said, mostly unsmiling) officials who wield remote sensing technology that puts London and New York to shame. Everything reeks of an efficiency and over-engineered effectiveness that, sadly, is difficult to find a few hundred metres outside the airport perimeter. This is the one case where the airport actually exceeds the expectations of the country itself.

Similarly over-engineered is Oslo’s new airport. Grand curving pillars of polished larch arc into the vaulted ceiling held together with stainless steel cables. This solid building, like the country itself, is built to impress and built to last.

Quite unlike its counterparts in the UK, where everything, even the relatively new terminals at Stansted and Luton airports, reeks of minimal quality standards and high profit margins for the builder. Less than eighteen months after it was opened, the new Terminal Five building at London’s Heathrow has missing ceiling tiles and damp patches along its corridors. The baggage trollies appear to have been designed with the same inattention to detail and, with clonking square wheels, were clearly put together by apprentices in Somerset more interested in downing pints of tasteless lager than taking pride in their work. And, even worse, some moron at BAA, when ordering more, bought exactly the same crap as before.

And perhaps this is where the link between the look and feel of an airport reflects the nature of the country in which it is situated: national pride. The Thais are proud of their vast new Suvirangman airport terminal in Bangkok and it shows. I took off from there recently after a hassle-free negotiation of security and immigration to land five hours later in Islamabad. What a contrast. Seething ‘can-do’ Asian efficiency meets dull, dispiriting inefficiency in a head-on clash between the 21st and 14th centuries on this flight. There is something telling in the runway configuration, too, that warns of the sullen backwardness to come. The single runway in Islamabad, the nation’s capital, is shorter and narrower than the either of the two taxiways in Bangkok, and worse lit. Like Kigali’s war-zone of an airport in 1995, aircraft which have barely had room to stop are then obliged to turn leaving half their nose-wheel rubber on the tarmac to begin the long trundle back to the terminal along the runway itself.

Not counting spiral dives into Beirut, Sarajevo and Baghdad, Paro airport in Bhutan must have the most terrifying approach of any country in the world. Worse, even, than Tegucigalpa in Honduras, where the airport has been squeezed between two high mountains and where one end of the runway goes off a vertical cliff face while the other has a main road crossing the threshold. The forty-five minute flight from Kathmandu to Bhutan must rank as the most spectacular in the world as its skirts the southernmost fringes of the majestic Himalaya range, seemingly just off the wingtip. When the pilot points out Everest, the plane is actually lower than the mountain and it hasn’t even begun its descent yet. When it does, a rapid descent is called for, and I mean rapid. Full flap is engaged, partial airbrake is deployed (those flat bits of metal that get erected along the top of the wing once safely on the ground), and wheels lowered. The plane executes a series of hard 35 degree banks to left and right in an alarming and noisy series of violent manoeuvres where the wingtips seem to brush the mountains on either side. Wheels touch down on Paro’s relatively short high altitude runway no more than a few seconds after the last of these ‘hairy’ manaoeuvres. “Welcome to the Land of The Thunder Dragon” is the sign on the terminal building. And right next to it, a wall painting of a giant ejaculating penis. Something to do with fertility and prosperity, perhaps? Though, given the sparse number of Bhutanese dressed up in their national costume, the ‘Gho’, not so much of the former.

Coming in to land at Tokyo’s Narita airport for the first time, I am struck by what could turn out to be another criteria: Not so much the type of ‘approach’ flown, but the reaction of the passengers during the approach. This was a Japanese flight and, being a UN staff member on a long flight – to Haiti in this case – I was surrounded by Japanese gentlemen in business class. No sooner had that universal instruction to “stow your tray tables and put your seatbacks into their upright position” been lisped into the tannoy system – the Japanese can’t say their ‘R’s’ so “flight” charmingly becomes “fright” which rather contradicts the whole point– than every seat hummed electrically and uniformly into the said upright position. Except mine, that is, because, being a ‘Johnny foreigner’ and jealous of the ways of democracy, I object to being told what to do and am therefore hard wired not to carry out instructions. Not only did every seat right itself as if on Horseguard’s Parade, but every single person then sat stiffly upright with the airline’s overnight blanket neatly folded across every inscrutable knee. The plane itself and the style of service was a kind of time warp. Everything just that little bit too narrow, too early (as in the collection of headsets a full hour before landing), and too faded.

The pace of change forced on an inchoately conservative airline industry by the Middle Eastern airlines such as Emirates and Quatar has raised the bar so significantly that flying with any other carrier seems rather tawdry. Something to do with management of expectations and cognitive dissonance if what I remember of my business school training is correct. The airport itself was another surprise. Eeerily devoid of human life forms, with kilometres of empty walkways purring into the middle distance, the plastic decor was also of that yellowed hue white plastic takes on when exposed to the premature aging effects of the sun. And the corners on all the bolt-on bits like toilet cubicles and hand dryers were all rounded giving a sort of echoing retro feel that made me think I had travelled back to the ‘seventies.

Equally surprising was that I did indeed find the ‘electric toilets’ I had heard so much about, with buttons to push for every conceivable form of disinfection, but every piece of high-tech gadgetry I came across had coils of ‘live’ electrical wire festooned somewhere nearby as if connection to the electricity supply was something of an afterthought.

And, echoing the charm of the lisped instructions from the cabin crew on board the aircraft earlier, I walked around a corner to find the impeccable marble floor being washed. The usual yellow bollards so beloved of health and safety regimes all over the developed world had sprouted everywhere. But instead of the usual warning, this time there was a graphic of floor washing with, written below in the best example I have yet seen of mangled ‘Japlish’ (Japanese and English) were the words, “execution zone”. Given the propensity of the Samurai warriors of old to resort to this method, this sign raised a nervous yet wry smile.

Updated 3 May 2011

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